Why Do I Rewatch the Same TV Shows? A Psychologist Explains
WJill Duffy was a riter, editor and first began rewatching television shows in 2015 after her move from the U.S.A. to India. Her adjustment to new life was difficult. Seinfeld Modern FamilyShe was reminded of New York City and San Francisco where things were more routine. She appreciated how the characters “[felt] like friends at a time when we were distanced from our friends,” she says. Enjoying your favorite British comedy episodes like The IT Crowd Peep ShowShe had a good time before going to bed.
Faced with the same feeling of isolation and loneliness half a decade later during the pandemics, she recommenced the daily ritual of watching TV programs at the end the day. She’s since expanded her library (Schitt’s CreekShe has now found a new favourite show. But the reasons she watches these shows have remained the same. It is comforting to know that she can tune in and watch something she enjoys when she feels overwhelmed or unprepared.
When you consider the course of human history—or even television history—rewatching television shows on demand is a relatively new phenomenon. However, our natural instinct to return to the same stories over and over is part of human nature, according to Shira Gabriel (a University at Buffalo professor of psychology) who studies how TV can increase feelings of belonging. She says that humans have an instinctive need to be part of larger social groups to ensure our survival. Stories are a way for us to feel safe and secure. It is an instinctive drive, which happens without our conscious awareness. “There’s this strong, very old evolutionary system in us that pulls us towards wanting these comforting narratives,” she says.
Our ancestors didn’t have sharp claws or ferocious teeth to ward off potential threats; they needed to rely on one another for their survival. “Throughout human history and all known places around the world, human beings have lived in collectives,” Gabriel says. “We believe that people evolved to have a mechanism that draws them to other folks.” This drive made humans social creatures and made them feel rewarded and happy when they’re having social interactions, she says.
At the time this instinct was developing in people, television, books, and magazines didn’t exist. Gabriel hypothesizes that’s why fictional characters can feel so much like real friends. “There was really no reason for humans to evolve a mechanism to differentiate between the real people in our lives and the people who become real in our minds.” Therefore, Gabriel says, people don’t really differentiate between the two—which means we can fulfill our need to belong by feeling connected to other people through these narratives.
Gabriel said that watching TV can be a great way to relax and find comfort. Gabriel’s research and that of others found that people feel transported to another place when they rewatch favorite television shows. Gabriel states that it can reduce loneliness when people watch these TV shows. “It’s actually a very healthy part of maintaining a strong sense of self and sense of connection in the modern world,” she says of rewatching shows.
These are just a few of the many benefits that you could reap by watching your favorite TV series again and again.
You’ll feel more restored
You must pay attention when you watch new television shows. New characters are available to learn about, and new worlds to explore. It can be a lot to handle when you’re exhausted.
Jaye Derrick from the University of Houston, who is a psychologist, said that if people feel depleted they can refresh their energy and restore self-control. In one small study, Derrick found that after college students did a draining writing assignment or used a lot of self-control over the course of a day, they were more likely to seek out familiar fictional worlds—as opposed to new ones—and felt better after doing so.
Derrick states that we have only a limited amount of willpower during a day. This limited self-control is used up by boring tasks at work and controlling what you tell your coworkers. “And then when you get home, your partner asks, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ You’re like, ‘I don’t care. Let’s just eat.’ That’s an example of just not wanting to make decisions anymore, because you don’t have the resources left to engage in effortful decision-making at that point,” she says.
Rewatching television shows can restore some of that energy, Derrick says, because it’s a form of taking a break from making decisions and therefore can replenish your self-control capacity. Maybe you enjoy the characters, or the emotions you felt when you first watched the series. By rewatching the show, “you can just sit back and enjoy the ride,” she says.
You won’t be disappointed
Research has shown that people tend to stick with the old habits when faced with the choice of trying something new or continuing a familiar routine. It is known as status quo bias and it reduces distress and disappointment.
Researchers discovered in 1988 that the preference for familiarity is what drives people to shop at the exact same store, order identical items, and have higher expectations. There is a greater chance that you will be dissatisfied if you try a new shop or order something new.
When you’re under stress or need a release, you may not have the mental bandwidth to make a decision about whether a new show is worth checking out. It’s possible that the comedy is not gratifying, characters are not engaging or the plot boring. Watching something you already know you’ll enjoy protects you from regret. You know if a TV show you’ve seen before will be thrilling, scary, or silly—and so you can be prepared to have a specific emotional experience that comes with watching the show.
“Re-watching shows that you’ve already seen gives you some predictability and control over your environment,” Derrick says. “You get to pick something to regulate your emotions for you, and you don’t have to pay attention as carefully as you would necessarily for a new show.”
You’ll enjoy a sense of community
Our social lives aren’t limited to in-person relationships with friends and family. Narratives and parasocial relationships—which are one-sided attachments to people you don’t know, like famous people, or who may not even exist, like fictional characters—can also serve a social purpose. “Through the television shows that we watch or the movies or the books that we read, even celebrities that we read about online, they can give us a sense of connection,” says Gabriel.
Rewatching TV shows gives you the opportunity to feel the comfort of having a conversation with others, without fear of rejection. “When it comes to fictional characters, they are at our bidding,” says Raymond A. Mar, a professor of psychology at York University, who co-authored the study. “They are there whenever we need them, whenever we ask.”
Social snacking is defined as quick and positive interactions with others that provide a sense belonging and connection. Psychologists refer to this ability as social snacking. “The idea is that we can use other forms of engagement in order to fulfill our social needs,” Mar says. “When we engage with stories, we’re often imagining the social world of the story characters.”
Jerry Kramer, George and Elaine can’t be substitutes for friends in real life. But it’s not just you: rewatching their adventures really can make you feel better. “If you’re feeling a little bit lonely or are missing some of these feelings of belongingness,” he says, “interactions like watching a television show with a character could help us feel more connected to other people.”
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